Ten years ago, Edward Cervantes—then a writer, artist, and public policy graduate student at Mills College in Oakland, California—found himself unexpectedly experiencing homelessness. “I was in a controlling relationship,” Cervantes says. His spouse cut off credit cards, changed the locks, and took away his computer, written documents, and art. “When that relationship ended, I was left living in my car with my cats,” he says. This was the beginning of a five-year struggle that ultimately left him losing access to his pets and vehicle, braving unsafe and unsanitary conditions in shelters, living on the streets of San Francisco, using stimulants to stay awake for fear of violence, and navigating a complicated social services system as he tried to get back on his feet.
“It was difficult to get help. People became increasingly frustrated with me, so I was estranged from friends and family,” says Cervantes. “I was using drugs to cope. I had nowhere to turn. For a while I lived in a patch of forest in San Francisco by an old water tower that had fallen over. Then I got a tent and lived in the woods with the raccoons. I would tell myself I was camping.”
Every day, Cervantes would take the bus to the Tenderloin, a part of San Francisco that has services for people needing a shower and a meal. There he could eat, shower, and wash his clothes. “I didn’t want to look homeless,” he says. “I needed to be able to go to the library to get out of the rain, and if you appear homeless, people deny you service.”
One major cultural contradiction in the United States is our stance toward housing. On the one hand, we uphold home ownership as an ideal—which is in itself problematic on land taken from Indigenous peoples. On the other hand, homeownership seems difficult to reconcile with Christianity. Jesus, after all, owned only his robes and sandals: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). Yet property ownership remains a hallmark of the American dream.
We also face an ongoing housing crisis, as increasing numbers of people lack access to affordable housing. As of January, 582,462 people in the United States are experiencing homelessness—2,000 more than in 2020. High prices have exacerbated a situation that was already bad, and evictions are rising.
Cervantes, who now has a home and a job in Los Angeles, says that high prices, lack of support, and drug addiction combine to cause a rise in homelessness. “People in L.A. say homelessness is the number one issue in our city,” he says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily because they care, but because they don’t want to see it. And it’s everywhere—under every bridge, in every park, in every little corner where people can tuck away.”
Home as a human right
Despite being one of the world’s most Christian countries, the United States has a vast and troubling inequality in housing access. Benedictine Father James Podlesny, a monk and pastor at two Western Pennsylvania parishes, views housing in light of Catholic social teaching. Podlesny says that while scripture supports property ownership, the biblical vision is different from what we see today. “In the biblical tradition you can amass wealth and property, but you hold it in trust for those who are poor,” he says. “The jubilee tradition made this clear: You can till your soil for seven years, but every seventh year you let others have your crops. You have a responsibility to care for all.”
This belief inspired the early Christians and continued throughout the Middle Ages, forming the basis for Podlesny’s own Benedictine charism. “Acts of the Apostles notes that the community of believers pooled their possessions. Benedictines go back to that tradition of communal ownership,” he says.
For Podlesny, we have lost much by viewing home ownership as an investment rather than the basis of life. “A house is more than a roof over one’s head,” he says. “It’s where human life is lived and where human life is enhanced. Housing is not a commodity, but a basic human right.” Catholic social teaching speaks of the importance of a living wage, and Podlesny asserts that this is not just minimum wage, but instead enough for a family to make a living. “It means having enough to have food to feed the family, a home, clothing, and enjoyment,” he says.
Cervantes says that “home” exists in the small daily comforts we take for granted until they are gone. Among the difficulties he experienced, he cites the following as necessities most of us never think twice about: “Not having anywhere to charge a phone to get directions or to Google resources or to search for work. Not being able to set an alarm. Not being able to wake up to milk in the fridge or a pot for coffee. No easy access to a toilet; no way to get clean.”
Podlesny says the principle of stewardship raises questions of equality, fairness, and justice, while the preferential option for the poor suggests that we will be judged by how we treat the least among us. “Today, home ownership has been declining; housing costs have risen faster than incomes; we see increased homelessness and the need for emergency shelters,” he says. “Many young families are being forced to double up with relatives as the price of housing is beyond reach. Senior citizens find it cuts deeply into their pensions.”
Due to the opioid crisis, Podlesny adds, many grandparents, often elderly women on a fixed income, are struggling to raise children alone. “Homelessness and housing insecurity are weakening our social fabric. There was no room at the inn for the holy family. Today in the face of homeless men, women, and children, we see the face of Christ,” he says.
Those of us who have resources, Podlesny says, need to wake up to the reality of housing injustice. “Anybody who has suffered in any way in life understands suffering. If you’ve ever been hungry for real, then you understand hunger. If you’ve had a fire in your home and know the hopelessness of that, you understand families who have suffered because a fire took their goods. We cannot turn away and ignore the poor,” he says.
When housing became a commodity
Inequality in housing access is rampant in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. According to the Princeton Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions in the United States, landlords file 3.6 million eviction cases annually. “We should be the last country in the world dealing with this,” says Carl Gershenson, project director at the lab. “We have no end to land. We’re very wealthy. We should be able to have a housing unit for everyone.”
Gershenson says that this inequality dates back to Thomas Jefferson and long-standing cultural ideals that teach that the “best citizens are those who own land.” This results in a government that supports homeowners: They provide subsidies to people who own homes, often the highest-earning families, and do much less to support those who may not have the intergenerational wealth needed to purchase property.
Not helping renters has much to do with legacies of racism, Gershenson says. “As Jim Crow laws were being dismantled, and we saw incredible migration flows from the South to all regions of the country, major changes occurred in how cities treated renters. In some cases, there were restrictions on sales to Black and Jewish families,” he says. “White families moved to the suburbs . . . so did jobs and services. But prohibitions on apartment buildings had a negative effect on the amount of housing available to low-income Americans.”
Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of urban and regional planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo, agrees that the commodification of housing that occurred throughout the 20th century is a cause of the current housing crisis. “Before the Great Depression, home buying was risky. You needed to put 50 percent down and pay off the mortgage in two to five years,” he says. “Many people wanted to become owners for reasons of security rather than entrepreneurship. But during the Depression, long term mortgages were developed to make home ownership feasible to large numbers of people. The system turned ordinary people into capitalists by making a home a tool of wealth production.”
Taylor says that problems were exacerbated because housing, unlike in many countries, became entirely privatized. “The United States, unlike many peer countries, never developed public housing,” he says. “Because of the operations of banking and financial systems, most people of color don’t have access to home ownership. Forty-four percent of Black people are homeowners; 100 years ago, it was 35 percent.” Instead, many Black people are forced to rent substandard housing, and homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods are often undervalued.
For Taylor, one potential solution to this problem is publicly financed community land trusts. “This would allow residents to take parcels of land out of the market dynamics and place them into a framework where they can control price,” he says. “This land can be leased to others but remains under the control of the community. It’s a way to develop new housing affordable to the people who live there.”
Cooperative ownership is another solution. “There are pockets of this everywhere,” Taylor says. “New York City has cooperative housing and land trusts; Buffalo, New York has a land trust . . . I believe it will be the trend in the future. It is the only way to manage a market that has created so much havoc in people’s lives.”
Gershenson asserts that political solutions are needed. “It’s an expensive problem, but it’s one the United States can afford,” he says. “At the local level, governments, especially wealthier suburbs that have excluded low-income families and people of color through zoning laws, can allow apartments to be built, especially along transit routes. They might have the fiscal capacity through tax abatements to subsidize the construction of rent restricted apartments, arguing that the rent can only be 30 percent of an income. Local groups can get together and compel their communities to do this.”
Having begun his work at the Eviction Lab in 2020, Gershenson views housing as a life-or-death issue. “I saw a paper that established very scientifically that one of the biggest risks of COVID-19 had to do with how many people were in a room,” he says. “Families doubling up were torn through by the virus; it decimated family units. Issues of housing insecurity and poverty are at the basis of who thrives in this society.”
When Edward Cervantes looks back on the five-year period in which he experienced homelessness, he is grateful for the Catholic Worker house in L.A. “They gave us lentils and bread. Something about those meals touched me,” he says. “The volunteers were so kind. There is not much kindness toward people experiencing homelessness, even from people providing services. This Catholic Worker house treated me with dignity in a way that filled my soul.”
But as far as Dominican Father Charles Dahm is concerned, the Catholic Church is not doing enough to respond to the housing crisis. In 1990, while serving at St. Pius V Parish in the predominantly Latino/a Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, he cofounded the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit that maintains affordable housing as one of its core objectives. “The Catholic Church, with some exceptions, is ignoring much of the homeless population,” he says. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t shelters. There are some that Catholic Charities supports. But has the Archdiocese supported affordable housing in Chicago? Hardly. I’ve looked at vacant convents and rectories as possibilities for shelters, and they are inaccessible because of the price.”
As parishes merge and buildings become vacant, Dahm sees tremendous potential for the church to take the lead. While the hierarchy remains silent, the organization he founded—today an independent nonprofit with a multimillion-dollar budget—aims to provide affordable housing for Latino/a communities in Chicago.
Resurrection Project tries to control gentrification by purchasing property and building affordable housing on the land. They just completed a project with 51 apartments, and they’re beginning work on another 100-unit building. Dahm says that a recent success involves a former foundry in Pilsen, now a vacant lot. “It was sold to a European developer who made a plan for upscale housing,” he says, “but we got the land rezoned and blocked their plan.” The city is currently holding hearings about what to do with the lot; Dahm and his colleagues are arguing that it should be affordable housing units. “We resist those who want to come in and make money at the expense of the people,” he says.
In San Diego, former patent attorney Tom Theisen cofounded an organization called YIGBY (Yes in God’s Backyard) that offers a faith-based response to the housing crisis there, where the cost of housing has tripled over the last 20 years and where demand has outstripped supply. “When voters are asked to fund affordable housing, they respond, ‘No, that will reduce the value of my house,’ ” says Theisen. “This attitude has been nicknamed ‘NIMBY,’ or ‘not in my backyard.’ Some of us started asking how we might counteract this. Since land is unaffordable, the county assessor suggested turning to underused faith community properties as sites for affordable housing. We call our initiative YIGBY, or ‘Yes in God’s Backyard.’ This is all God’s property.”
YIGBY will soon begin its first major project: a 26-unit building on the property of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, San Diego’s oldest Black congregation, which eagerly agreed to participate. This building will serve military veterans experiencing homelessness who cannot compete in the city’s tight housing market. While some faith communities hesitate to make such an investment, Theisen hopes more will join in YIGBY’s mission. “It’s hard for some faith communities to take a financial risk with assets and commit a congregation for 30 or 40 years. It’s effectively building a new church, which is a major investment. Some have expressed interest but also caution,” he says. The Catholic Diocese of San Diego has expressed tentative interest, he says, but has made no commitments.
Edward Cervantes hopes initiatives like YIGBY gain more traction. “In Oakland all these old churches had Sunday services but were empty during the week. It seemed like an underutilized resource. These churches could be feeding people, letting them shower, putting tents in parking lots. But churches weren’t doing that. I hope things are moving in a different direction,” he says.
One community combining faith with care for the vulnerable is St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in Buffalo, New York. Having served the city’s most impoverished communities since the 1990s, this organization has recently stepped up its efforts to provide transitional housing for those in need. “Saint Luke’s is involved in charity and justice,” says board member Kathleen Mattar, who has been involved there for 15 years. “All people need a sense of dignity and purpose. Charity comes in because you can’t talk to people about making long-term change when they are hungry or have no place to sleep. You have to address the immediate needs of food, clothing, and shelter.”
In addition to a soup kitchen, food pantry, educational programming for youth, and a rehabilitation program for men struggling with addiction, St. Luke’s, which receives no government funding and is independent of the diocese, has bought and renovated 23 neighborhood homes for families to use while getting on their feet. They have seven houses with mentored living for single mothers and their children and two shelters for single men. They are also raising money for a new shelter for 120 men.
“In addition to providing shelter, it will be an access point for health care, mental and physical health, legal services, literacy training, and all sorts of things people need,” says Mattar. “We also plan to serve people who are living in cars or couch-surfing. These are people typically in school or underemployed. This building will have a spot where people who are not staying with us can come in and take a shower and do laundry. Personal hygiene and lack of access to laundry is what can cause these people teetering on the edge to fall out of education or employment,” Mattar says.
When asked if the charity St. Luke’s provides can make a lasting impact, Mattar says that the mission’s purpose is simply to be present for anyone in need. “The data will tell you that in the past year, rents have doubled. People who were barely making it are now far behind. Their utilities get shut off,” she says. “That is why we see a spike in people coming to us for food, clothing, school supplies, other issues. Gas and groceries are higher; we’re coming out of a lockdown, so people who worked as janitors are out of a job and can’t work remotely. The government gave money then to keep people afloat, but at the end of the day the bill comes due. We were already predicting growth in homelessness with the pandemic, but now the increase in prices for everything has dramatically affected the poor.”
Dorothy Day famously stated that we need a “revolution of the heart” to create a society where all can thrive. Now safely and comfortably housed, Edward Cervantes stresses that people without housing are not existentially different from those with homes. He is grateful that he was assisted by an organization that took a “housing first” approach, initially paying his rent, assigning him to a therapist and social worker, and helping him start over. Today he works as a senior program officer at Just Detention International, an organization that aims to end sexual abuse in jails and prisons. He answers a crisis hotline and shares his story openly in the hope of helping others.
“I was housed in September of 2018. By November I was clean and sober; by February I had a job,” Cervantes says. “People who say ‘housing first’ doesn’t work are wrong. It was hard to be on the street. I faced a lot of violence and was incredibly vulnerable. I don’t think I would have gotten sober without my housing secured.”
Father James Podlesny says that those with resources need to do more for those in need. “Woe is the innkeeper who turns his back on people in need,” he says. “Many of our well-off Catholic community members are turning their back on their neighbors. Jesus said we will be judged by how we care for the least among us: ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was homeless and you gave me shelter,’ as stated in Matthew 25. We cannot turn away and ignore those in need.”
This article also appears in the April 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 4, pages 30-35). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Kimson Doan